Reading the Entire Oeuvre of Dorothy, A Publishing Project
Reviewed by Stacy Lathrop
Following Twitter handles is a bit lazy, a bit wild, and a bit contrived—you don’t always know what you’re going to find. Much in the Twitter-thicket is repetitive, but sometimes you find something extraordinary. Sabrina Orah Mark satirizes our new social twitch of enlightenment-through-Twitter in her story “Tweet,” from her collection Wild Milk (2018). By what other means do we now know how to live?
And, yet, it was only by my repetitively scrolling through the ironic—often bordering on sardonic—tweets of a couple of independent booksellers that I first discovered the unique publisher Dorothy, a publishing project. Danielle Dutton and Martin Riker founded the St. Louis-based press in 2009 to spur a conversation about women’s experiences, more specifically those of women artists and activists, through an experimental, often poetic, and at times philosophical mix of new and translated titles and reprints. Each book is under 200 pages, costs $16, and they usually publish annually in October or November. (You can also get a whole set for a discounted price direct from the publisher.)
I decided to follow this developing conversation and read their entire world of books—eighteen in total— over the course of two months. To start me on my Dorothy journey, my booksellers/handlers zealously promoted Nell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper (2014), which received rave reviews from PW and Kirkus as well as a glowing writeup in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (as many Dorothy books do). The novel is about a couple who relocates from America to Berne. Just as the narrator, Tiff, found it difficult to put into words the bodily distress of a miscarriage provoked by her husband swerving to avoid a wallcreeper (a small bird) that he then adopts, I struggled to articulate my irritation with Tiff. Tiff had not wanted to become pregnant—it was just something that “happened” when she and her newlywed husband got drunk. It was that passivity that made it difficult for me to care about her pain.
As her marriage disintegrates, Tiff’s actions become more intentional, and the narrative becomes almost parodic. As I noticed in other Dorothy books, the narrator (who goes back to school for environmental studies) and the author start to blur, and the ideology behind the book becomes bigger than the relationships among the characters. Ultimately, I felt I was in a philosophical dialogue with the author, when I wished she had let me stay with a narrative that could flow naturally, wildly, like the Elbe River Tiff actively protects from dredging.
Meanwhile, the four Ravickian novels by Renee Gladman consider how the very act of writing and speaking fabricates events. Architectural structures mirror linguistic structures and in postapocalyptic Ravicka, language (and thus culture) is beginning to disappear. Natives of and visitors to Ravicka attempt to locate themselves after an unnamed crisis in the first book, Event Factory (2010). In the second, The Ravickians (2011), the characters begin to narrate the experience of crisis and dislocation, and then, in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013) characters attempt to connect the gaps in that experience. Ana Patova, an author, is attempting to get to her friends, other artists, in order to communicate and piece together their fractured reality. Finally, these Ravickians investigate the history that has been erased in Houses of Ravicka (2017). Gladman uses many architecture metaphors to scaffold her primary theory, which is that reality emerges through events and is not itself a concrete structure. The arc of the series shows how a disaster both destroys and creates, in that “recovery” requires recovering (re-finding, uncovering, and cohering).
Similarly, in some ways, Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (2010), originally published in 1954, narrates a crisis like Gladman’s Ravickian novels— in this case, a flood and ergot poisoning spread by loaves of rye bread. A poisoning death in the Willoweed family provokes a visit from a doctor, who eventually marries another member of the family, illustrating joy and pain emanating from the same tragic event. Comyns (unlike Gladman) tenderly narrates each detail like a naturalist illustrating beloved flora and fauna. In Comyns’ hands, ducks swimming in drawing rooms, the miller drowning himself, or the butcher slitting his throat are not fantastic events, but natural consequences of the catalyzing catastrophe of the book.
The Time of the Blue Ball (2011) by Manuela Draeger (a pseudonym) continues the naturalism of Comyns in a series of interconnected fables centered around detective Bobby Potemkine. Translated from the French by Brian Evenson, these stories of musical dogs and flies, woolly crabs, baby pelicans, and a detective in love with a bat with long dark braids feel realistic. Draeger conjures a “post-exotic society” (Draeger’s term)— which marries naturalistic detail to absurd juxtaposition. This technique opens the reader’s imagination to another tangible world, one where fire was invented and destroyed by a woman (not “man”), where police are no longer needed, and where activists go to great lengths to free a pompous bureaucrat just to see him instinctively gobbled by their co-activist, a tiger. Originally written for children, these stories ask a reader of any age to remain alert to how narrow our perceptions are—and the possibility of much more expansive realms we could glimpse if we allowed ourselves.
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi’s novel, Fra Keeler (2012), also reads naturalistically on the surface: the narrator buys the late Fra Keeler’s house in order to investigate the man’s death. Along the way, though, we begin to doubt the narrator’s reliability as he is interrupted in his investigation by chance events that consume his imagination—a mailman delivering Ancestry.com materials (a pestering he attributes to a neighbor woman); an old, frail man in a yurt who speaks of wars; and a hike in a canyon during which he imagines he is dead. By the end, we are left confused and in suspense about just what is happening—the narrative is as shattered as the skylight the increasingly paranoid narrator cracks after spying on the neighbor woman through it. In the finale, a detective interrogates our narrator (who sought himself to investigate the death of the man whose house he bought), but I won’t spoil what this portends.
Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women (2012), Amina Cain’s Creature (2013), and Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo (2015) are the most intimate and domestic of the Dorothy books. Each is a collection of short, harmonic stories that echo one another in impressionistic, painterly ways. Promising Young Women tells the story of Lizzie, an aspiring actress in her twenties who cycles through psychiatric institutions. Despite her grammatically broken sentences, the constancy of Lizzie’s mental state and its internal logic are effectively conveyed, which is why this book reminded me of a Cezanne. Somehow, by the end, it is Lizzie, our mental patient, who appears the most self-aware of all the characters.
Cain’s Creature conveys her characters’ consciousness through the everyday, often domestic, relationships narrated in each story. Like Mary Cassatt, Cain splits her consciousness and returns her reader’s gaze. In trying to understand these couples, she often reverses expectations, suggesting the “creature” is assessing the reader.
Walsh’s Vertigo, finally, evokes Monet. She suspends us between each familiar scene and each italicized thought about it. Her series of stories of the same family relating to the world in different places and in varied relationships leaves the reader slightly off balance, in vertigo, and forced to examine the effects more closely for what they might hide.
Joanna Ruocco’s Dan (2014), is a fabulist bildungsroman about how consciousness is more threatening to power than angry protest is. Dan is the name of the fictive town in which Ruocco’s character Melba Zuzzo, a bakery worker who is also a keen observer and lover of science, lives, and Dan is the masculine consciousness that authorizes what the town’s inhabitants may do. Melba, despite her best efforts, is unable to conform to the patriarchal rules of Dan—not because she’s rebelling, but because of her growing awareness. As she begins to see the man-made rules that undergird Dan, she fails to unconsciously abide by them. Femininity in Dan is defined by masculine authority, and Melba isn’t able to play the role of other to someone else’s fantasy. Tragedy unfolds after a seemingly “innocent” petting of Melba by the town’s powerful doctor, who diagnoses a growth in her ear as cancer (a metaphor for her listening and burgeoning recognition), and consequently puts her under surveillance. Both Melba’s job at the bakery and her rented apartment depend on playing by Dan’s rules. Her naïve inquisitiveness clashes with these conventions, and once under surveillance, Melba is doomed.
Unlike Melba, Marianne Fritz’s tragic character of Berta Faust does at one time aspire to a traditional feminine ideal—the Madonna. Translated by Adrian Nathan West, The Weight of Things (2015), awarded the Robert Walser Prize in 1978, struggles to understand the disaster of Nazism, using the narrative’s very German to suggest transformation, such as from Faust (also fist) to Berta’s married surname, Schrei (scream). Berta is largely narrated through the later, post-war memories of Wilhelmine, the Faust household’s petty and controlling maid—who is in many way’s Berta’sWalsh’s Vertigo, finally, evokes Monet. She suspends us between each familiar scene and each italicized thought about it. Her series of stories of the same family relating to the world in different places and in varied relationships leaves the reader slightly off balance, in vertigo, and forced to examine the effects more closely for what they might hide. Joanna Ruocco’s Dan (2014), is a fabulist bildungsroman about how consciousness is more threatening to power than angry protest is. Dan is the name of the fictive town in which Ruocco’s character Melba Zuzzo, a bakery worker who is also a keen observer and lover of science, lives, and Dan is the masculine consciousness that authorizes what the town’s inhabitants may do. Melba, despite her best efforts, is unable to conform to the patriarchal rules of Dan—not because she’s rebelling, but because of her growing awareness. As she begins to see the man-made rules that undergird Dan, she fails to unconsciously abide by them. Femininity in Dan is defined by masculine authority, and Melba isn’t able to play the role of other to someone else’s fantasy. Tragedy unfolds after a seemingly “innocent” petting of Melba by the town’s powerful doctor, who diagnoses a growth in her ear as cancer (a metaphor for her listening and burgeoning recognition), and consequently puts her under surveillance. Both Melba’s job at the bakery and her rented apartment depend on playing by Dan’s rules. Her naïve inquisitiveness clashes with these conventions, and once under surveillance, Melba is doomed.
During the war, Berta had been impregnated by a music teacher on leave from the front. (He plays Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”—that most famous of waltzes composed to lift Viennese morale following its post-war depression—to seduce her.) On returning to combat, the teacher sarcastically muses about the experience to Wilhelm— but in a spasm of guilt, makes Wilhelm promise to look after his unseen son, Rudolfo, if anything should happen to him. Wilhelm travels to the Faust household to announce the teacher’s demise. In honor of that war-wrought obligation, Wilhelm marries Berta, leading to the birth of their Little Berta.
Obedience suspends Wilhelm in ambivalence; the mindlessness and uncertainty of duty permeates the book. The book is deeply psychoanalytic, in that unconscious playing by the rules brings punishment as harsh as rebellion could. Berta, like Melba, was not successful in adapting to social expectation. Her suffering recalls the Madonna—she is saintly, passive, and complicit in her own pain. Her attempt to break out of this martyr persona rises to the level of Greek tragedy and is the inversion of the mother role.
Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden (2016), translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, blends novel, biography, and film critique. Loden was the writer, director, and star of Wanda, a 1970 independent film set in the mining towns of Pennsylvania, depicting the existential crisis of a woman with limited choices for a better life. Léger narrates how becoming Wanda allowed Loden—before passive and a mirror of others’ desires—to piece herself together as a person, to become true to herself. In this hybrid work, Léger attempts to recreate this becoming for herself and her readers.
Léger describes the final scene of Wanda, in which Loden has Wanda take control of her senseless life. After giving up rights to her children and divorcing her husband, Wanda becomes infatuated with an abusive bank robber, later shot and killed during a robbery for which she serves as lookout. Wanda escapes and ends up in a bar, watching the replay of the robbery, until she hitches a ride with a man who sexually assaults her. Wanda cries out, hits back, and escapes through the woods to join the company of others who offer her a drink, food, a cigarette. Unlike Fritz’s Berta, Wanda, having reached her end without finding any answers in suffering, returns to humanity.
After the authoritarian existential crises of Berta and Wanda, the stories of Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest (2016) jar us to adaptability and contemporary society. A young woman falls in love with an androgynous, lazy, often-drunk Guide who nitpicks every aspect of her life until emancipating her as a Host. (George is fond of totemic characterizations.) In another story, the Guide transforms into a (just as critical) ovulation machine that only promises bankruptcy. In the title story, a babysitter cares for a baby that will never age, becomes lover to its father who treats her as a child, a theme repeated in a later story of a student who becomes a lover to her Teacher.
Maturity in George’s stories is learning to navigate the expectations of powerful men as well as a managerial, consumerist society obsessed with infantilizing (and pathologizing) sexuality. Her characters learn how to use that very sexuality to survive life’s technologically animated indecencies.
Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (2018) twists the compulsive obsession with external social forces as found in George’s stories into internal ones. Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana, the novel is a transformative retelling of fairytales about falling in love. Hers is a fairytale of falling out of love. The narrator is an exdetective who, traveling with a translator, is hired by an abandoned husband to track his wife and her lover who have fled to a far-away forest—Taiga. Deep in Taiga, the narrator and the translator discover the primitive metamorphosis of sexuality, both its cruelty and its ability to propel strange, new life forms. Sex, a form of communication, shows up as the dominant metaphor about the complexities of human relationships. Just as you can get lost in the forest in a Grimm’s fairytale, here, you get lost in Taiga—“the disease of language” itself.
The Complete Stories of Lenora Carrington (2017) by Lenora Carrington and Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark extend Rivera Garza’s play with symbolism. These surreal stories reside more in the poetic imagination and mythic possibility than in the natural and personal experience. Mark’s stories satirize both domesticity and the political in indexical metonyms. A mother’s wild milk, for example, refused as unusable by her child’s daycare teacher, becomes that mother’s socialized guilt. In another story about all of the horrors that occur under American presidents, Mark suggests that citizens who care more for their own safety than others’ security are what enables the problems we lament. In another, a young woman desperately tries to identify her mother. After ruling out both Hillary Clinton and John Berryman, she is left only the maternal protection of a salmon-colored sweater to help her swim upstream.
It is Lenora Carrington, though, who perhaps reaches the furthest into the human condition, beyond our present, deep into our past and future. She, too, has a story about a mother and daughter. Her mother is a cow that tells her daughter there is no learning: human understanding is written in living iconicity that does not cast shadows. These humans, in Carrington’s tale, live in mythic consciousness; they do not subvert lore to prop oneself up, nor mark one’s identity in the logic of symbols. These humans are naked and no longer pretend to know who they are. They flow in the very timelessness of myth.
Carrington seems to say that it is only in letting go of our reflexive self-consciousness, taking leaps of faith in denial of omniscient intentionality, and permitting ourselves to be deeply wounded by cruel existence and sacrificed as sacred cows, that we may truly change.
To be sure, after taking in this eighteen-book conversation among Dorothy authors, I was changed. I also felt that same intimate discomfort I do when my friends and relatives push at sensitive places buried in my memory. I do not, however, wish to self-consciously protect those sensitive places but, like Dorothy, risk sharing them. Dorothy is publishing work that takes charge of language (as women) and deploys (as writers) myth in the service of change and its possibilities. Therefore, Dorothy creates a rich territory in which to communicate about women’s consciousness. Using narrative and far more than 140 characters, these novels convey a breadth of female experience and possibility more economically—and poetically—than the Twitter-verse, demonstrating that writing is so much more than a string of words.
Stacy Lathrop, MA, did her graduate studies in social sciences at the University of Chicago, her primary work focusing on social poetics, narrative, and the anthropology of policy. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area, and works in digital archiving and publishing.
The Summer of Dead Birds By Ali Liebegott New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2019, 104 pp., $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
The press release for Ali Lebegott’s new book, The Summer of Dead Birds, describes it as “a chronicle of mourning and survival, a vulnerable and honest document of depression and failed intimacy.” Would you read that? The press release imagines you are a sad lesbian, full of yearning for all the loves you have lost and loves you have yet to lose, plus dogs who will die on your couch. And it imagines you want your sadness to amount to something like wisdom, acceptance, or meaning, along with pet hair and lint. If you are this person, The Summer of Dead Birds is not for you. Read something else.
Liebegott’s book is about nothing but the narrator’s voice as it swings back and forth in time, and this focus is part of the wondrous accomplishment of the 84, plot-resistant, linked lyric poems that comprise it. Its publication (press release notwithstanding) is owed at least in part to writer Michelle Tea, head of the Amethyst Editions imprint at Feminist Press. Five minutes after Tea published her first book in 1998, The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, a memoir of growing up druggy and queer, she was gathering writers for anthologies, establishing RADAR, a reading series in San Francisco, and producing Sister Spit, a traveling troupe of writers and performers that has included Eileen Myles, Beth Lisick, Dorothy Allison, and Justin Vivian Bond. Why float around in your own private tide pool when you can populate a queer sea? Through RADAR and Sister Spit, Tea has collaborated with Liebegott, who is also a visual artist and probably best known as a writer/ producer of Jill Soloway’s TV show Transparent.
Ali, the narrator of The Summer of Dead Birds, is in fact a sad lesbian, who has lost love and is traveling with an old dog. A survivor she is not, though, and nor does she wish to be. The word survivor has lost all meaning from overuse. Plus, it describes nothing true. To Liebegott, survival is not a credential or a moral category. She doesn’t think we survive anything. We continue with the sum of our experience, or we do not continue. The Summer of Dead Birds doesn’t want to lift you up. It wants to excite you about the natural history of sorrow and to point out the similarity between freedom and grief. Driving alone, part exile and part escapee, Ali seeks “a humble beaten god / like a bad petting zoo goat / always shooed for gnawing the wall / a god like a bar buddy / with a flawed and sloppy past / knuckles fucked from punching walls.” A goat like Ali.
I lied about there being no plot. There’s a tiny one. The mother of the woman Ali is married to dies of cancer, and Ali’s shrink tells her, “Few lesbian relationships survive the death of a mother.” She’s so angry when she hears this, she determines to stay, except a year later she drives off with her Dalmatian, Rorschach. The book is their road trip. Not much happens except encounters with dead and dying animals that summon memories of other dead and dying things. The book is partly a love letter to the woman Ali has left and partly notes on ambivalence worn like a second skin.
Liebegott’s writing is startling in its observation of the outer world that is also an inner world, and, like a road trip, it unravels what you think you know. We come to love Ali as she lopes along, responding to small moments of need and confusion that expand in her attention to them. The first poem begins (Liebegott omits periods):
the birdbath is always half-empty / where we live, it can be dry in three days / this morning while I filled it / a bird the size of a dust ball tried to fly / never getting higher than an inch off the lawn/ a dove sat on a nearby branch / flapping its wings slowly and sadly / the way we numbly open and close a cabinet door / when there’s nothing inside to eat / finally, the dust ball gave up / fluttered inside a cinder block to hide / I feel guilty leaving the birds thirsty / Still, I didn’t fill the birdbath
Writing about the woman who is dying, Ali evokes the bardo of almost-dead, where significance goes almost unseen and where moments of seeming nothing become forms of everything: “you hated that she only wanted to watch cooking shows / while she was dying and could barely eat ... I was embarrassed she would waste any part / of her evaporating life discussing the flat tire / so I pulled up a chair to watch the cooking show, too” Elsewhere Ali recalls: “the laundry was made up solely of your mother ’s pajamas / the drawstrings became tangled around the agitator / I struggled to free them but they wouldn’t budge / this was the first time I cried, it didn’t matter if I freed them / your mother wasn’t going to live long enough to wear / them again”
Liebegott occasionally tosses in abstractions such as “soul” or “prayer.” Religious language, like the language of advertising, relies on signal reactions in the reader rather than creating a concrete moment we can enter. There are florid patches, too, that try to push emotion on you rather than earn it. Liebegott writes of the mother ’s cancer, “her own body abducted one cell at a time.” There is no abduction. The mother has a disease in which cells replicate indiscriminately, and it might have offered her more range as a writer to observe what those cells actually do.
Mostly the book is sly and surprising, melding sadness and comedy. Driving with Rorschach, Ali comes upon a scene of road kill, and in the way that anything dead feels like all dead things and in the way the stab of death stirs the excitement of sex, the moment is touching and absurd:
this land of flattened pigeons in Pompeii poses / wings upraised and trying to flap away from their bodies / two puffed-out pigeons seduce each other by dancing / and pecking the ground dangerously close to their / flattened brother / ... if my therapist were here I’d say, / I desperately need the inlove pigeons not to eat the flattened one
Liebegott brilliantly evokes the way, in anticipation of a moment, we look forward to looking back at it. “My most treasured things,” Ali says, “aren’t mine yet.” Along the way we learn that Dalmatians have spots all over, including on their gums, that dogs love grief because they get to walk more, and that Dalmatians are the only dogs that smile. (This may not be true.) The writing burns hottest when reversing expectation, most especially the cliché of the male loner searching for space out West. In Liebegott’s hands this becomes a comic and anxious ode to escape for its own sake: “what if,” Ali writes near the end of the book,
you leave knowing there’s nothing where you’re going / the hand out the window, the red rocks, all that / the hot wind blowing in the window, the back of your T-shirt / stuck to the seat, wet with sweat”
When asked in interviews why women don’t write more about the road, Liebegott says they do, only people don’t want to publish those books or publish women who write “authentic queer characters.” In a 2013 interview in the blog HTMLGIANT, she told Janice Lee she thinks about queer kids in libraries—like the queer kid she was—“looking for a book that reflects your experience and you can’t find one.... As a writer, I always try to put a little lifeline in my book for that reader. That, and category fuck as often as possible.”
Asked by Lee who she would rather sleep with, Dostoevsky or Van Gogh, Liebegott answered: “I think Van Gogh, but that might be ageist, because I think I’ve only ever seen portraits of Dostoyevsky as a balding man. Van Gogh had really bad teeth, right? I think Van Gogh, although they both seem like terrible problematic relationships, so either would do. It’s tough. But probably Van Gogh.”
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic- at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Col lagist , New Let ters, Tri - Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Postcards from the Thing that is Happening, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
She Would Be King By Wayétu Moore
Minneapolis, MN; Graywolf Press, 2018, 312 pp., $26, hardcover
Reviewed by Amy Watkin
In the early nineteenth century, Liberia was known as Monrovia. It is one of only two countries in the world founded and colonized by a political power (in this case, citizens of the United States) for the former enslaved people of the same power. Monrovia is the heart of the “send them back” movement led by the American Colonization Society to help usher free black people “back where they came from,” ignoring the fact that not all enslaved people were from that nation.
In She Would Be King, Wayétu Moore dives into this history in a way that folds into the plot seamlessly. Readers need to know the history of Liberia, and Moore knows that many do not, since it has not been a part of Civil War and slavery units in American History lessons. Moore presumably shares the information at least in part so that readers can begin to comprehend the gray areas of power and skin color that existed there.
The first part of the book is divided into sections, one for each of the three main characters. Moore is masterful at leaving a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of each section so that readers clamor for more, before wrapping us immediately in the story of the next character so that we nearly forget the other characters exist (except for the clever parallels that Moore draws, particularly between the female characters that so deeply influence the trajectory of the plot).
In the early 1800s, Gbessa (pronounced Bessah)—our first main character—is a young girl growing up in a Vai village in Monrovia. Born on a cursed day with “oil-black skin” and red hair, Gbessa spends her childhood listening to villagers chant “Gbessa the witch” and waiting for her thirteenth birthday, when she will be taken to the forest to die because she is cursed. The day finally comes after Gbessa has made a friend, a boy named Safua, who is newly initiated into the Poro society of leaders and warriors and sure that one day he will be king. He promises Gbessa that he will spare her life. She is left in a cave in the forest, surviving on food Safua secretly provides until she learns how to be a part of the nature surrounding her. She saves herself, singing, “‘Fenge, keh kamba beh. Fenge, kemu beh.’ We have nothing but we have God. We have nothing but we have each other.” Meanwhile, Charlotte “Emerson,” an enslaved young woman on the Emerson plantation in Virginia, is very like Gbessa. Both young women feel persecuted yet invisible at the same time. Both commune with nature in particular ways, and both are kept from speaking their minds by forces larger than themselves. Charlotte fails to protect a younger slave and is forced by her slave community to live in an abandoned slave cabin. After months of solitary confinement, the slavers one day throw in a man named Dey.
It felt good to me to say his name. That night, when I was finally quiet, Dey held up the lantern beside the burlap sack as I lay down. He set it between us, so the light swayed against his jaw. Scars covered the round curves of his arms, his head pressed against his praying hands as he searched my eyes, in that musical way he did, and I was seen. He could see me. And I could see him. And finally, I knew. I knew who he was, deeply.
Part of this knowing, this deep-seeing knowledge of another human, comes from using that person’s true name. Being known means being called by your name. Charlotte and Dey’s remarkable union produces a son, known to others as Moses but only as June Dey to readers in an example of Moore’s emphasis on names. In this section the emphasis reminds us that masters conferred names on slaves, an important step in erasing one’s culture. Elsewhere in the book we see that names offer insight between public and private personalities, between personas that feel powerful under one name but limited under another. June Dey finds strength just at the moments when others would undoubtedly die, and must search for the circumstance in which his powers are put to their best use, as Moses or as June Dey. Very few characters know that Moses is also called June Dey, so readers who know him primarily as June Dey have a window into his abilities that characters who only know him as Moses cannot access. It matters what we call people.
Our third protagonist is Norman Aragon, born in Jamaica to a Maroon mother and a British father. We learn later in the book how Norman’s life coincides with Gbessa’s and June Dey’s, but Norman’s background and young life play a key role. Precocious and very attached to his mother, Norman is always too Other to be accepted by any groups on the island. Norman’s mother fantasizes about Freetown in Africa, the Sierra Leone city founded by former enslaved Americans, but conflicts between the Maroon people and British forces, between Norman’s mother and father, between magic and denial of magic, separate Mother and son, leaving Norman on his own.
With only books from his father and a gift for disappearing from his mother, Norman must find his way to the place his mother dreamed of.
Moore’s writing is a fascinating mix. On the one hand, this book is historical fiction carrying the full weight of the past for people of color that has been buried—or at least disregarded—by dominant cultures for so long. The novel also feels like speculative fiction, as Moore crafts parallels between this nineteenth-century world and our own. Characters might be in very di fferent circumstances in the twenty-first century, and yet themes of invisibility, white society’s disrespect for others’ cultural heritage, underestimation of the powers held by certain people of color, and the shame, abuse, and low expectations heaped on women are easily found today.
Moore’s book is also magical realism, or maybe just magic. Please believe me when I say that in this review I am giving you the skeleton of the story and leaving the magic for you to discover when you read it. Moore’s words were spellbinding to me, as surprising as they were enticing, as in this passage where the main characters, the magical forces, and the cultures collide and cooperate to conquer:
They were together now. It had begun. I dwelled in that hiding place with the three of them that night. However present the stronghold of loneliness had been on each of their lives, there lingered a hope that perhaps one day they would find others. In that moment, hope’s shell melted, and it extended its limbs and breathed, became real. Became true. Alike spirits separated at great distances will always be bound to meet, even if only once; kindred souls will always collide; and strings of coincidences are never what they appear to be on the surface, but instead are the mask of God.
While two of the three main characters are men, and scenes like the ones surrounding this passage read like the most sophisticated Marvel movie you’ve ever seen, it is clearly the gifts of women that readers and characters are to revere and follow. Gbessa herself is like a combination of Hermione Granger, Queen Elizabeth I, and Janie Crawford. June Dey and Norman Aragon both acquire powers and wisdom from their mothers and other women in their lives. As Gbessa concludes at one point, “perhaps everybody, in their own way, was either a witch or the king who loved her.”
The final section of Book One (essentially the first half of the book) is itself called Monrovia, and there we see the story of Liberia, and begin to learn why this country is the pivotal setting for Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman Aragon to meet. The plot I have revealed to you here is only really the first half of the book. I leave the rest for you to discover on your own, because you shouldn’t be deprived of the gasping, heart-filling journey that is to come. The wind is a character and sometimes narrator in She Would Be King, guiding, counseling, pushing, and comforting characters. I won’t spoil for you the joy of learning just who the wind is or what role she plays; suffice it to say that she has her work cut out for her, bringing together disparate characters from all over the world in this novel full of magic.
Amy Watkin is an Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel about Constance Wilde, wife of famed writer and gay icon Oscar Wilde.
Swallowing Mercury By Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak Oakland, CA; Transit Books, 2017, 160 pp., $15.95, paperback
Flights By Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft New York, NY; Riverhead Books, 2018, 416 pp., $26.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Beth Holmgren
Recent political news about Polish women has been grim, driven by the relentless campaign of the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party against women’s reproductive rights. The news about Polish women writers, I am pleased to report, is much more encouraging, especially for the writers who can engage directly with an English-language audience thanks to the skills and support of their translators.
Last year, poet Wioletta Greg’s first novel, Swallowing Mercury, was published in Eliza Marciniak’s spot-on translation and longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This year, the prolific Olga Tokarczuk (To-KAR-chook) won that prestigious prize for her novel Flights. The first Polish recipient of the Man Booker International Prize, which is given to the best work of translated fiction from anywhere in the world, Tokarczuk decided to share its cash award of 50,000 pounds with Jennifer Croft, who not only masterfully rendered the multilayered stylistic register of Flights into English, but also campaigned for its translation since the novel first appeared in 2007. A photo of an ecstatic Tokarczuk and Croft at the prize ceremony captures a landmark in women’s history and Polish literature. While the current Polish government would deny women control over their bodies and lives, one Polish woman writer and her American partner in prose have won the literary world’s respect and can reach millions of new readers with their stories and testimony.
The concern for broader accessibility has always been key for Polish writers. In this regard, the fact that Wioletta Greg’s Swallowing Mercury received a nod from the Man Booker is more surprising than Tokarczuk’s win, for its coming of age story foregrounds a provincial Polish terrain that may strike non-Polish readers as particularly bizarre. The fictional village of Hektary, the heroine’s hometown, blends a vibrant, unruly nature with traditional customs and pagan-like rituals that most of its Catholic villagers unquestioningly embrace. The protagonist and first-person narrator, named Wiola after the author, describes this world as she explores it with her cat Blacky: “I learned to climb haystacks, apple and cherry trees, piles of breeze blocks; I learned to keep away from limestone pits hidden by blackberry bushes, from hornets’ nests, quagmires and snares set in the grain fields.” After Blacky’s death, Wiola’s grief dissipates only when she wins a statue of Jesus at a church lottery, a totem which awes her friends as well as the women gathered at her home for a feathering evening (they are breaking up feathers to stuff pillows and duvets) and a deity to which Wiola earnestly prays, hoping that He can resurrect her cat. Wiola remembers how her grandmother and mother feverishly prepare for a “visit” from a picture of Our Lady from St. Anthony’s Basilica, washing walls, polishing furniture, and spraying flykiller— “‘We can’t have bugs nesting in the corners when the Most Holy of Virgins crosses our threshold,’ my grandmother kept saying.” Though Wiola never gets the chance to peer into the tulle-covered box encasing the icon, she is riveted by the spectacle of the curate and helmeted firemen who bear Our Lady into her home and set it down on the flowercovered altar her mother and grandmother have improvised.
Complicating these images of a village frozen in medieval time is the oddball modernity of 1980s communist Poland. This means that Wiola is more or less educated in a state-run school and can enter national art contests sponsored in the Soviet bloc, though her unintentionally smudged drawing of Moscow prompts a government official to interview her in person about her political views. The material vagaries of communist Poland also mean that Hektary’s state-owned power plant intermittently shuts off electricity, and imported luxury goods are only sold in special shops for those with foreign currency, despite Poland’s presumably classless society. Part of Wiola’s sexual awakening involves drinking with and spurning the advances of Natka, a sometime prostitute, and ogling the contents of Natka’s bathroom cabinet, in which “everything was unfamiliar: packages available only at a Pewex shop, with names like Dior and Lancôme. A perfume bottle labelled ‘Dolce Vita’ which looked like a crystal sugar bowl caught my attention. I sprayed my wrist. The scent of vanilla cupcakes and summer filled the room.” Yet we are propelled through Wiola’s curious and curiouser world by her pluckiness, dynamism, sense of humor, and keen eye for wildly disparate details. She is an obsessive collector, not only of images, but also of locally available art—namely vintage matchbox covers. And she is surrounded by family eccentrics. Her grandfather keeps tabs on the collapse of all the tile stoves he built back in the day, and her father is an avid taxidermist and one-time jailbird who fills Wiola’s home with zoology books and the detritus of his hobby and introduces her to one notable thief who comes over to play poker. Her father ’s atheism and interest in the natural world leaven her mother ’s piety and superstition. His confession that he still feels like “unripe fruit” at the advanced age of fifty hangs over the novel like a symbol of Wiola’s coming of age or, perhaps, all life. Indeed, Unripe Fruit was Greg’s Polish title for this sharp, fresh little masterpiece.
In contrast, Tokarczuk’s Flights largely steers clear of the provincial Poland that Swallowing Mercury explores—though, for the record, Tokarczuk began her career as a writer of fantastic prose about Polish borderlands. Flights covers a tremendous stretch of earthly space and time; it is no accident that its best sections are brilliantly conceived historical fiction. By guiding the reader with a first-person narrator who sometimes seems to overlap with herself, Tokarczuk adapts for her purposes a device used by such Polish predecessors as Witold Gombrowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki. It serves her as a means to engage directly with her reader and to establish “her” character as a specific kind of writer—an “anti-Antaeus” whose “energy derives from movement,” a refugee from training as a clinical psychologist who boldly declares that she is drawn to freaks and cabinets of curiosities. Because this Tokarczuk/not Tokarczuk fills pages with reflections on such topics as the self-sufficient worlds of airports and trains taken by those afraid to fly “where every millimeter of the way will be touched by the wheel,” it seems that Flights is all about the experience and ontology of the traveler. The novel’s Polish title, Bieguni (Runaways), underscores that idea, for it is bound to one of Tokarczuk’s most riveting fictions, the tale of a Russian woman who temporarily escapes her life of pain and toil by joining a sect of people living on the Moscow metro. These runaways stay in constant motion to elude an Antichrist of control, upholding their creed: “Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”
I contend that Flights is about much more. Tokarczuk herself gives us permission to make our own “meaningful shape” out of what she calls her “constellation novel,”1 and I take her at her word. This novel is compelling in the way it suddenly breaks out into demarcated fictions, demonstrating how the narrator is sometimes lured elsewhere: “Tales have a kind of inherent inertia that is never possible to fully control. They require people like me—insecure, indecisive, easily led astray. Naive.” Her tales dwell most powerfully on the human body—the marvels of its design, its significance after death—and she slips into the minds and voices of those who mapped it for science and preserved it out of reverence. The narrator whisks us back to the Netherlands in the late seventeenth century where the great anatomist Philip Verheyen meets his former student, Willem Van Horssen, who guides us to what the master has achieved. Verheyen has just finished dissecting that part of his leg that had to be amputated in his youth (at his behest the surgeon had preserved it), and he has discovered what he calls the “Achilles” tendon joining calf and heel. Van Horssen is stunned by both discovery and name: “Maybe Philip Verheyen has happened on the trail of a hidden order—maybe in our bodies there’s a whole world of mythology? Maybe there exists some sort of reflection of the great and the small, the human body joining within itself everything with everything—stories and heroes, gods and animals, the order of plants and the harmony of minerals?” Van Horssen later brings Verheyen the first copy of the anatomist’s masterpiece, Corporis humani anatomia, in which “the human body became some sort of mysterious procedure etched down to its very essence.”
Elsewhere, the narrator lets herself stray to the deathbed of the great Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. Here, the composer ’s sister, Ludwika, is making sure Chopin’s explicit instructions are being fulfilled: a cast is made of his hand, a mask is made of his face, and his heart is removed for burial in his native Poland. It is characteristic that Tokarczuk’s historical fictions almost always feature a female protagonist, usually a wife, sister, or daughter fully initiated in the work of the family’s male “genius.” (Even Verheyen’s solitary post-surgery life is made comfortable by a kind, resourceful Flemish widow.)
Ludwika cannot bury her brother in Warsaw due to his connection with the 1830 uprising there against the tsar. Yet the body part that best symbolized his love of country can be repatriated covertly. This smuggling scheme requires that Ludwika carry the jar containing her brother ’s heart by means of a leather contraption hanging underneath her crinoline. One she has crossed the border into Poland, her traveling companion helps her remove the precious relic from between her legs: “Aniela, rummaging around in lace, drew out the jar safely and handed it to Ludwika with the gesture of someone handing a mother her newborn child. And then Ludwika burst into tears.” It is as if Ludwika has given birth to Chopin’s immortality.
Flights’s narrator voices the most moving plea for preserving the sanctity of a loved one’s body through three imagined letters of Josefine Soliman von Feuchtersleben. Josefine’s father was the famous Angelo Soliman, an enslaved African who rose to the status of courtier during the reign of Joseph II, Emperor of Austria. Though Soliman had been a well-educated Freemason, the husband of a white Christian woman, and a favorite of the emperor ’s in life, he was hideously degraded in death—gutted, stuffed, and displayed as a specimen of the “African race” in Joseph II’s cabinet of curiosities. With increasing desperation and fury, his daughter presses the emperor ’s successor, Francis I, to return her father’s mummy to her for Christian burial. Josefine’s final letter, written as she is dying, argues most categorically that “the human body is our greatest gift,” “forever sanctified” through a Christian god made man, and therefore most liable to sacrilege by evil rulers. She concludes by damning Francis I as a tyrant and usurper.
My review of Tokarczuk’s Flights delineates the constellation that burns brightest in my reading. But Tokarczuk provides many more stories and reflections for you to ponder as you fashion your own meaningful map. I strongly recommend that you explore both Greg’s vivid world in Swallowing Mercury and Tokarczuk’s dazzling galaxy in Flights. Their translators have already guaranteed you firstclass seats.
Beth Holmgren is Professor and Chair of Duke University’s Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department. Recent books include Transgressive Women in Modern Russian and East European Cultures: From the Bad to the Blasphemous, ed. with Yana Hashamova & Mark Lipovetsky (2016), and Warsaw is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzyńska, 1928- 1945, a cultural biography of a Jewish girl who fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and was interned in one of the only POW camps designated for women during World War II (2018).
The World According to Fannie Davis By Bridgett M. Davis
New York, NY; Little, Brown and Company, 2019, 320 pp., $28.00, hardcover
Lottery. Lotto. Jackpot. Mega Millions. About half of Americans see nothing but dollar signs in their eyes at the mere mention of these terms. Legal lotteries—the first modern enactment having occurred in New Hampshire in 1964—are not only widely accepted and factored into various states’ budgets, but they are also largely ubiquitous to the culture of the United States. You cannot pass through a supermarket, bodega, or now even an airport without seeing flashes of winning figures, jumpstarting a slew of fantasies of tag-popping shopping sprees, remote vacations, and the elimination of piles and piles of debt.
People can buy tickets and dream freely now, but it wasn’t long ago that players and vendors, many of whom were African Americans, had to remain in the shadows, the looming possibility of prosecution being a constant threat. The precursor to the Lottery as it is known today—the Numbers— was neither fancy nor legal but still drew enough revenue to do more than raise eyebrows.
The Motor City is the setting for Bridgett M. Davis’s The World According to Fannie Davis, a memoir recounting her life as the youngest daughter of the titular Fannie, the center of her world and a Numbers runner. The illicit nature of Fannie’s business forced a mandate of secrecy among her family, friends, and customers. Bridgett Davis was ready to keep silent about her family’s life outside the law until her mother Fannie’s death.
To Davis, always a writer, the only way to properly honor Fannie’s life and make peace with herself was to pen a memoir. Making the decision to disclose the details of her upbringing breaks a silence she had grown accustomed to maintaining. Disobeying the Davis doctrine in this way has given Bridgett Davis the freedom to shed any fear or internalized shame that she harbored growing up, and boast about the mother who supported her.
The World According to Fannie Davis is a time capsule of memories. Fannie takes center stage in the account, and rightfully so. Fannie’s customers, neighbors, and relatives (who visited the Davis home on both official and unofficial business) “moved in a planetary orbit around her, the sun.” The Davis matriarch was a source of strength, “blue collar bourgeoisie” middle-class status, and endless life lessons in the form of sharp commentary and living by example.
Fannie Davis was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father, Ezra Drumwright, was an entrepreneur and member of the limited, fortunate class of black landowners. (Davis writes that these black landowners weren't so much uncommon as kept back by a combination of racial terrorism and illegal loopholes used to strip their land away.) Fannie’s mother, Caroline, ran her husband’s books, and, together, they raised nine children. The relative prosperity that the Drumwright family experienced allowed an intuitive, witty, and beautiful Fannie to grow into a woman who imagined steering her own success.
After getting married to John T. Davis and having five kids—Deborah, Dianne, Anthony, Rita, and Bridgett—Fannie Davis and her family packed up and moved north to Detroit, nicknamed “Hitsville” for being home to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records. Add to that the attractive job prospects of the local General Motors factory, and Detroit fit the bill for a new beginning, a “shot at the American dream,” as the author puts it. Access to this dream became the Numbers.
The Numbers in Detroit were complicated, as we learn. After leaving the reader in suspense for a couple chapters, Bridgett lays it all out. Winning Numbers digits—three digits, which later turned into four and five—were tabulated based on the results of the Detroit and Pontiac horse races, a different formula used for each digit. Reading this explanatory passage a few times, okay, ten times, it’s still hard to feel like an expert. However, the point is not for the reader to grasp these calculations, but to know that Fannie understood them, and “often knew the winning number before most.”
Bridgett Davis’s colorful portrait of her mother and the life she created for herself and her family of seven abounds with truths and praise. Bridgett’s view is at once childlike—looking up to Fannie in adoration and looking around, trying to make sense of the world that filled her days—as well as knowing. The stress of running an underground business was something that Fannie didn’t wear on her sleeve, but the kids knew. The author writes at one point, “We all collectively and viscerally understood the need to protect Mama from any undue stress. This led to my siblings and me keeping certain upsetting news from her, because we all knew she ‘had enough on her.’ We kept secrets from Mama to protect her.”
The reader is transported to their childhood universe, a time of questioning some incoming stimuli and absorbing others without knowing it. Like many families with multiple children, each kid in the Davis household had a role to play, the boundary and fault lines both becoming apparent on the pages of the memoir. Bridgett was the youngest child and less exposed to the vicarious worrying of the first-born. She was admittedly spoiled, but ever eager to help her mother any way she could. The author relished recognition from Fannie, especially as it related to her Numbers. Other times, the stress of the Numbers business crept into Fannie as she came of age, often using her diary to vent,
...it scares me. This has been a tough year for Mama. Sometimes I wish we weren’t in Numbers cause this way, we don’t get a steady paycheck. But then I ask myself do you want to give up your luxuries along with the Numbers? And the answer is “no.”
The benefits of a comfortable home life were apparent, too—and not just for show. Fannie used her economic strength to convey deeply philosophical lessons to her children. Bridgett was only ten years old when her mother bought her and her sister Rita each a diamond ring—purchased at a pawn shop; good as any other place—and with these gifts said, “Now you don’t have to get excited just because a man gives you a ring. You can get excited over how he treats you.”
“Balancing being a mother, head of household, and community figure was a challenge she met with warrior fitness while living in a societal atmosphere that was constantly demeaning her blackness and her womanhood.”
The writer artfully dovetails recollections such as these with descriptions of sights and sounds that make her world leap off the page and come alive to the reader. While at the family home, affectionately referred to as “Broadstreet,” Davis remembers constant activity starting from elementary school. Entranced by Fannie and her ability to run her own business, Bridgett writes,
I still see Mama checking her business: First, she’d check the numbers taken via phone and recorded in her notebook, red pen in hand. If she found a hit, she’d circle it in red. Next, she went to the business that had been collected ‘out in the streets’, i.e. picked up from customers by a runner, usually a friend’s son or family friend she employed. Those bets were written on small slips of paper known as tickets. For those, she’d wet her finger, and go through each ticket one by one.
Bridgett Davis charts a timeline of well-researched and embedded black history as the backdrop to her life in Detroit. There are innocuous events, like a wedding at which Bridgett’s sister Dianne met Smokey Robinson, and one instance when Diana Ross herself waved at Bridgett. Other times, Davis is appropriately heavy with her recounting that the 1960s and 1970s could be hell for black people, even up north, once she left the safe walls of the Davis’s home.
Shopping trips were laced with racial profiling; Bridgett’s beloved father couldn’t keep steady work at GM while unemployment for young black men was at a rate of almost 30 percent; black people were relegated to the inner-city sections of Detroit, kept out of majority white neighborhoods, cross burnings and other intimidation tactics lit up a reign of terror. A different kind of numbers accompanies the following passage covering the Detroit riots of 1967:
No Numbers ran that entire week, as looting, burning and violence wore on for five days. A combined force of nearly 17,000 officers, National Guardsmen and federal troops were sent in and by the time the uprising was suppressed, as many as 155,000 rounds of ammunition had been fired by law enforcement; 43 people were dead—30 of them African-Americans, including a four-year-old girl named Tonya, victim to a 50-caliber bullet fired by the National Guard; more than 7,000 people were arrested on riot-related charges.
Fannie’s only desire in life was to keep her family and everyone who mattered safe, fed, and provided for. Balancing being a mother, head of household, and community figure was a challenge she met with warrior fitness while living in a societal atmosphere that was constantly demeaning her blackness and her womanhood. Meanwhile, her Numbers operation itself was precarious in that it was always at risk of discovery—a reminder made clear by the countless raids on surrounding gambling houses by local and federal law enforcement.
Fannie’s books remained safe, but the next biggest threat to her purse was an impending state lottery. As Bridgett Davis explains, the state saw tens of millions of dollars in annual Numbers revenue as an opportunity to evade raising taxes on its citizens. Meanwhile, the black Detroiters who were Numbers big-timers had been supporting their own communities—namely funding civil rights initiatives though the prominent Detroit chapter of the NAACP.
“Legislators surely reasoned the state should capture all that money wagered, rather than leave it in the coffers of two of society’s most despised groups,” Davis writes. As Michigan prepared to legalize a practice that would transfer much of Numbers wealth to the state budget, the demonization campaign of black gambling “criminals” used to discourage Fannie and other runners and players like her, was drowned out by the wild success of the state lottery. “Well we already know that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it,” Fannie lamented.
Fannie and her family weathered a fluctuating income, mixed with numerous changes to the family dynamic and back to back tragedies, which, coupled with the eventual death of Fannie, emotionally unhinged our narrator. Her grief is raw as she searches for some kind of glue to keep her life in order—a role that her mother used to play.
The World According to Fannie Davis ends as a sendoff, Bridgett’s dedication to her mother and a defense of the happiness and security she was granted as a child, despite the means. She makes a compelling case for “making a way out of no way,” a common mantra for black people; she humanizes the hustle. This book will be a thought-provoking and inspirational delight for anyone searching for understanding in a world designed for only some to succeed.
Shirley Ngozi Nwangwa is a New York City-based writer passionate about giving marginalized folks a space to be heard. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram @llovellin.
An essay by Anastastia Higginbotham
Learning to accept the truth about white supremacy, when you are white, is like learning to accept an unspeakable but widely known truth about your family. The family secret. The family shame. Everyone already knows, and yet, to say it aloud will ruin everything. Or so you’ve been told.
White supremacy is the very rich uncle who favors you. He’s not handsome but you fail to notice on account of how rich he is and how thoroughly he spoils you. As in rotten. As in rotten to the core. As in rotting inside of you, in your core.
This very rich uncle, who remembers you on your birthday and always sends presents, stole the money he used to get you those presents from Black and Brown people. He robbed them, your neighbors, the people who greet you “good morning” and nod kindly in your direction as you pass on the sidewalk. Your uncle framed them for his crimes. They’re in prison now, which has been a very good investment, because he owns that prison and has convinced himself he owns every life inside of it as well. He earns money from their phone calls home. He hires the prisoners out to work for Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods and only has to pay them a few cents a day—a day!—which they can put toward paying down their phone bill debt.
He comes to you around the holidays. His favorites are Christmas and the fourth of July. He slides a wad of cash in your pocket and whispers, Buy yourself something pretty, honey. He means something from Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods. He also means a house. He means you should buy lingerie and organic food and a house in the right neighborhood, where your kids can go to the right school. He says “right” but he means “white.” But he also means right.
White supremacy is a lying, thieving, raping, murdering uncle with ties to the mafia. But you don’t need to know that. Why are you asking such unpleasant questions? Haven’t I been good to you? What do you want, sweetheart? I’ll get it for you. Stop asking these worrisome questions. It makes you look old.
Uncle White Supremacy, who is also an arms dealer, drug dealer, and human trafficker, claims to know whom you can and cannot trust, whom you should and should not love.
You know what Uncle White Supremacy loves? Your pale skin, your blue eyes, your shapely legs. He’s been watching you since you were a baby. He always knew you’d be a beauty. How old are you now, 18? he coos. Oh, you’re only 14? That’s surprising. A beautiful young woman already. If you weren’t my niece, well….” Well, he would try to have sex with you. Or lure you into it, saying you lured him. Or possibly he would force it. And then lie. And say you’re lying. You’re delusional. He would never! His own niece? You women are crazy. He raped your mom when they were kids. She never told you? She told then and was not believed. She tried telling again but her family was furious at her. They shamed her and she finally did come to believe she had something to do with it, and so, stopped believing it ever happened. She no longer believes it happened. My own brother? He would never!
Uncle White Supremacy is disappointed when you don’t reply to his texts. Where were you? Answer me. You’re so pretty. Do you know how special you are? Do you?? You still haven’t told me where you were. He is disappointed you’ve been peeking in his books, studying his tax returns, tracking his investments. His lip twitches when he confronts you about it. His pupils constrict. He wants you to stop spending so much time with those friends of yours. The boys with their pants that sag. The girls with their big soft afros that take up space, their locks, and the others with their shaved heads and hairy legs. And that sissy boy you seem to like so much—which bathroom does he/she/it use anyway?!
He thinks it’s cute you go to those rallies for those people. Cute but dumb. Just goes to show how naïve you are. He thought you were smarter than that. The world is full of pain, honey, you think you can stop it??? That’s life. It’s real life and I’ve been protecting you from all that. This is the thanks I get? Oh, don’t look so pained. As I said, it makes you look old, and ugly. To be honest, I’m disappointed in you. I thought you had more sense.
Uncle White Supremacy places a hot hand on your thigh under the dinner table. He thinks you belong to him too. You don’t.
Anastastia Higginbotham is the creator of the Ordinary Terrible Things children’s book series, which includes Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (Dottir Press, 2018).
Feminist Bookstores: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability By Kristen Hogan
Durham, NC; Duke University Press, 2016, 328 pp., $24.95, paperback
A Life in Motion By Florence Howe
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2011, 536 pp., $19.96, paperback
Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women's Bookstores in the United States By Junko R. Onosaka
New York, NY; Routledge, 2006, 224 pp., $57.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jolie Braun
If there is a feminist bookstore that currently looms in the popular imagination, it’s Women and Women First—and it’s fictional. Featured on the sketch show Portlandia, for eight seasons viewers engaged with a feminist bookstore staff that took themselves very, very seriously. The show often played off of tropes about these businesses. One sketch revealed the store’s inventory to be organized in hyper-specific, esoteric categories such as “Political Cartoons – Lady Artists” and “Softball 1980-1989.” Another depicted a bookseller skeptically examining a popular new release: “That’s a top-selling author. Do we want that in here?” To which her colleague definitively replied, “No, we want bottom-selling authors.”
Today, with only a handful of feminist bookstores left in the US, younger readers are more likely to be familiar with Portlandia’s depiction than to have ever personally set foot in one. From the 1970s to the 1990s, however, there were more than one hundred across the country, and collectively they played a pivotal role in advocating for women’s literature and ushering it into the mainstream. The rise and the fall of feminist bookstores is the topic of Kristen Hogan’s Feminist Bookstores: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability and Junko R. Onosaka’s Feminist Revolution in Literacy: Women’s Bookstores in the United States. Onosaka’s work—which was published a dozen years ago and is the first major study on feminist bookstores—provides a thorough history of their emergence and evolution, who founded and ran them, and how they functioned. Hogan’s book, from 2016, aims to redefine the narrative of these businesses by highlighting the lesbians and women of color at the center of this movement and examining how the bookstores operated as sites of activism, community building, and accountability. Both offer enlightening explorations of how and why these stores succeeded (and failed) as well as a closer look at the ways in which they helped shape the feminist movement and the literary landscape.
Before delving further, some history may be helpful. By the mid-nineteenth century, with the rise of literacy rates and the growth of the publishing industry, literary writing became a viable profession in the US, and many women took up the pen as a way to support themselves and their family. Onosaka discusses how other parts of the book trade, however, required greater capital and mobility and remained more difficult for women to enter, even well into the twentieth century. Publishing, for example, was referred to as the “gentleman’s profession,” known for attracting upper-class individuals interested in the promise of prestige and cultural influence. Bookselling, too, had barriers; in 1917 a group of women booksellers formed the Women’s National Book Association after being barred from membership from the all-male Bookseller ’s League. Whose stories and experiences were deemed worth publishing and what works made their way into bookstores and the hands of readers, then, was controlled by an industry predominantly run by elite white men.
By the mid-twentieth century, cheaper and faster printing methods—such as the mimeograph machine and offset printing—proliferated throughout the US, fundamentally altering who had access to the means of production. The new accessibility of printing was a boon to the emerging counterculture and political and social causes such as the Civil Rights movement and anti-war protests. Second wave feminists, too, recognized it as an opportunity to print pamphlets, essays, and manifestos. The first copies of Robin Morgan’s anthology Sisterhood Is Powerful was published on a mimeo machine in 1970. That same year, Women and Their Bodies, later renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves, appeared as a stapled booklet on newsprint. Inexpensive and quick production also resulted in underground newspapers such as Ain’t I a Woman and The Female Liberation Newsletter as well as magazines like Off Our Backs that helped forge feminist networks by connecting likeminded women across the country.
Feminist publishing flourished during this period as well. Iconic presses such as Shameless Hussy, Women’s Press Collective, and Diana Press were founded in 1969, 1969, and 1972, respectively. Although many of them only lasted a few years, one of the most well-known and significant, Feminist Press, still thrives today. Florence Howe’s memoir A Life in Motion spans the scholar, publisher, and activist’s eventful life, but her memories of founding the press in 1970 form the spine of the book. At the time, Howe was a literature professor at Goucher College. Frustrated by the lack of available works by and about women writers for her students, she believed that a series about historical women writers written by contemporary women writers could be a step toward addressing this dearth. Her proposal, however, was rejected by multiple publishers who did not see a market for such works. At a raucous meeting hosted by Howe for her students, one suggested that the movement needed its own publishing house, prompting the beginning of the Feminist Press.
Its first release in 1971 was Barbara Danish’s The Dragon and the Doctor, a children’s book, adapted from a publication Danish discovered on a trip to China, challenging traditional gender roles. It was soon followed by small volumes on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Perhaps Feminist Press had some of its greatest impact recovering a “lost literature,” releasing once widely-circulated works such as Rebecca Harding’s Life in the Iron Mills and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper. When these reprints appeared in the early 1970s, both had been out of print for several decades, and their authors relatively unknown to modern audiences. That by 1990 they were included in The Norton Anthology of American Literature speaks to the press’s prescience and feminist publishing’s role in broadening the American literary canon and transforming college curriculum.
If the presses and publications gave a voice to the feminist movement, the bookstores provided the physical space for it. These were venues that radically prioritized the needs and interests of women. Growth happened quickly across the country. The first bookstore opened in 1970, by 1975 there were 45, and by 1980 the number had grown to 71. Reflecting on this time period, Howe recalls that “there was a hunger for our work.” Feminist bookwomen—a term most commonly used to refer to women booksellers but may also include women involved in other aspects of the book trade, collectors, and experts—stocked and promoted books by women writers, lesbian writers, and writers of color that other bookstores typically didn’t sell, and championed publications dedicated to feminist issues such as economic and racial justice. In the process they offered a new way of thinking about these texts. Hogan describes this work as building the “feminist shelf,” a term she employs to refer to the ways in which these booksellers’ efforts to discover, select, and organize their inventory created new ways to understand these works, helped establish a community of writers and readers, and served to document and disseminate feminist history. If the idea of “women’s literature” seems obvious to us today, it is largely due to the pioneering work feminist bookstores, publishers, and publications did to introduce and normalize this concept.
This network of bookstores, periodicals, and presses was a collaborative, dynamic relationship, with each component both supporting and depending on the others for success. The presses and bookstores relied on the feminist newspapers and magazines to review their books and share their information with readers. The bookstores were advocates for the presses, magazines, and newspapers, helping them find readers. In 1976 bookwoman Carol Seajay began Feminist Bookstores Newsletter (FBN, later Feminist Bookstore News). Originally intended for booksellers and then later available to all feminists working in the book trade, FBN was a powerful tool, enabling subscribers to pool their knowledge and resources and work together toward the common goal of supporting feminist print culture. Articles ranged from book reviews to bookstore profiles to pieces on programming ideas or strategies for dealing with distributors and publishers, and the content had a real impact. One notable example of the publication’s influence is that the lesbian feminist press Spinsters Ink was able to publish Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals after successfully raising the funds through FBN.
The bookstores were more than just places to buy books. They served as community and resource centers, hosting meetings and lectures, creating and distributing bibliographies on topics such as divorce and abortion, and providing bulletin boards for visitors to communicate with each other and learn about local events. They were places to meet and socialize—an aspect particularly important for lesbians who had few options for public spaces where they could be both out and safe. Hogan observes that the ambitious goal to serve as a “site of feminist education” was evident in the name of the country’s first feminist bookstore—Information Center Incorporate: A Woman’s Place (ICI)—which opened in Oakland, California, in 1970. As other bookstores sprung up across the US—New York, Cambridge, Austin, San Francisco—many looked to ICI as a model. At their best, these bookstores were a highly visible and physical manifestation of a desire for and work toward real change. According to Onosaka, “through women’s bookstores, many women found their identities, communities, and sisterhood.”
Feminist bookstores differed from their counterparts not just in the books they stocked or the programming they offered, but also how they functioned. Staff promoted works they were passionate about regardless of their profitability and allowed books they believed in to remain on the shelves indefinitely rather than returning them to the publishers after a set period, as was the common practice. For some bookwomen, these new enterprises were an opportunity to create an alternative to traditional business models that reflected their values. Many bookstores began as collectives where consensus ruled. Yet this approach presented its own set of challenges such as a heightened sense of authority but diluted sense of responsibility and slow decision-making processes. Reliance on volunteer labor was necessary but often unpredictable. Such issues eventually lead some to modify their structures. Howe remembers similar growing pains at Feminist Press. She writes, “through its first decade … [the press] was organized horizontally in a manner I would describe today as ‘creative chaos.’” Hogan notes that the mission of these stores also set them apart from other bookstores, most significantly in their commitment, evident in both inventory and structure, to working toward inclusivity and accountability. They were spaces where staff and customers could have difficult conversations about important issues and work together to create and maintain feminist ethics.
During the 1970s, the presses and bookstores both supported and benefitted from the burgeoning field of women’s studies, which grew out of a similar motivation to rectify the lack of representation in college curriculum. As with feminist bookstores, the expansion of departments across the US was rapid. Howe reports that the two existing academic programs in 1970 in the US had grown to 270 by 1976. This emerging discipline required new readings and anthologies, and some of the earliest textbooks began as course readers, such as Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s now classic This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (first published by Persephone in 1981 and then Kitchen Table Press in 1983). Many of these works were stocked by feminist bookstores and published by feminist presses or other small presses; some of Feminist Press’s books became permanent course adoption texts. Onosaka notes that today many mainstream and academic presses publish women’s studies textbooks and bookstores often have women’s studies sections, both the result of feminist bookwomen demonstrating the value and profitability of women-centered works.
Despite their successes, the bookstores remained economically vulnerable. Hogan identifies chains as the primary threat, beginning in the early 1980s. Unlike independent bookstores, chains had enough clout to be able to demand discounts and special terms from publishers. Alternatively, Onosaka recognizes a host of troubles during that decade, including a shift in the political and social atmosphere (the “backlash”) and the rising costs of books and shipping. Vandalism and harassment also plagued feminist-run businesses. Howe describes a devastating arson incident in 1982 that damaged the premises of Feminist Press and resulted in substantial financial loss. By the 1990s, chains, superstores, and the emergence of Amazon were making it increasingly difficult for feminist bookstores to survive. The closure of their primary distributor Women in Distribution in 1979 and the cessation of FBN in 2000 also were serious blows to the community. In A Life in Motion, Howe remembers that the dawn of new millennium saw major changes on the horizon in publishing and bookselling: “When the press started, local bookstores were as common as local drugstores, and we rejoiced as the some 140 feminist bookstores were founded … Who among us imagined that most bookstores would vanish before two colossi— Barnes & Noble and Borders?” Here it is hard not to think back to Portlandia’s depiction of self-serious feminist booksellers. If we consider the work they wanted to accomplish, the pressures they faced, and what was at stake, the origins of this portrayal read a bit differently.
While Hogan and Onosaka cover similar terrain, their works complement rather than duplicate, and any reader interested in the topic will appreciate both. Literary scholar Onosaka’s Feminist Revolut ion is drawn from archival research and provides a thoughtful history that demonstrates how the bookstores played a pivotal role in the feminist movement, particularly in terms of making writing about women’s experiences, concerns, and achievements not only accessible, but a priority. Readers unfamiliar with the broader context of the publishing world and book trade will find the background information useful. Hogan’s Feminist Bookstores, which is based on interviews she conducted with store founders and staff, similarly documents the achievements of feminist bookwomen, but focuses more on understanding these efforts as an extension of a set of values that prioritized resistance and accountability. She also shows that several of the bookstores were lesbian-run and identified spaces and that many of the founders were lesbian and/or women of color, disrupting the myth of the second wave as straight and white. Hogan, a scholar and librarian, has the unique perspective of having worked at BookWoman in Austin and at the Toronto Woman’s Bookstore, and at times her account is an intensely personal one, reflecting on her own experience with being part of a collective to meeting her partner at work.
Onosaka’s book closes with a hopeful chapter about the bookstores still in existence, yet it would be hard for any reader in 2018 to match the author’s optimism. Only one of the stores she mentions— Chicago’s Women and Children First—is still open. Hogan’s work is more recent, and perhaps unsurprisingly, offers a more sober view. She argues that the demise of these radical and transformative bookstores was the result of feminist booksellers sacrificing their own unique concerns in order to join in the larger movement of helping independent bookstores survive during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Consequently, the history she provides is not just a celebration of their successes but also “a cautionary tale about attempting corporate advocacy at the cost of movement accountability.” At the time, many feminist bookwomen likely saw refashioning themselves as independent booksellers as a marker of their resourcefulness and adaptability in an increasingly hostile climate. Hogan, however, contends that this decision came at the cost of their ethics-driven approach, weakening the perception of feminist bookstores as places of movement-based activism.
Despite the immense importance of feminist literature and women’s writing to late twentieth century feminism, these bookstores and booksellers largely have been overlooked in feminist histories. This may be partially due to their status in the book world; Hogan and Onosaka contend that within the book trade there has long been a hierarchy, with booksellers at the bottom. Hogan quotes FBN founder Carol Seajay, who sees this as an issue of class: “publishing books is important; selling them is beneath contempt.” Yet the stores and the women who ran them, like authors and publishers, were an integral part of the feminist print culture network, getting books into the hands of readers. What activism looks like and who gets recognized for doing this kind of labor are central to these histories, and both authors offer compelling arguments that encourage us to expand our definitions to include bookstores as part of this literary activism.
In June 2018, Portland’s In Other Words bookstore, the inspiration for Portlandia’s feminist send-up, announced that it was closing: publicity from the show had not translated to sales. According to the store’s website, reasons included “increased expenses and the lack of funds, volunteers, and board members.” Although many of the stores and the earliest presses are now gone, their influence remains, evident in some things we now take for granted, such as the wide availability of women’s writing and literature. While there is still work to be done, their efforts can be seen in some of the ways mainstream publishers and bookstores have changed in the past few decades and the ways in which today’s literary canon is a more diverse one than its predecessor. Moreover, there is little doubt that feminist print culture is thriving in other forms. Women-run small presses such as Siglio, Emily Books, Dorothy: A Publishing Project, Dottir Press, and others have emerged, taking a feminist approach to publishing. Organizations such as VIDA, People of Color in Publishing, and the Well-Read Black Girl book club and literary festival work to call out inequalities and provide opportunities, continuing the legacy of feminist accountability that Hogan recognized as central to the feminist booksellers. While the language and venues have changed, these contemporary projects are building on the groundwork laid by the second-wave feminist booksellers and publishers. Books and bookwomen remain crucial to the work of feminism. They continue to transform our culture, one reader at a time.
Jolie Braun is Curator of American Literature at The Ohio State University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her article, “A History of Diane di Prima’s Poets Press,” which used archival material to tell the story of the Beat Generation poet’s overlooked but significant publishing venture, appeared earlier this year in The Journal of Beat Studies.
The Incest Diary By Anonymous
New York, NY; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 144 pp., $18.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
The author of The Incest Diary had sex with her father from the time she was three until she was 21. She has published her account as a memoir and has chosen to remain unnamed. This morning on Facebook, in response to a comment I posted about the book, a man said a memoir can’t be anonymous. He didn’t want to think about the subject matter of the book, so he found fault with its form.
The Incest Diary was published in hardcover a year ago. This review coincides with its paperback release. Some reviewers have questioned the truth of the narrative because the text is artfully constructed, with layered movements back and forth in time. Other reviewers have faulted the literary accomplishment because the author describes the sex she experienced in ways that purposely arouse the reader. Some reviewers have discredited it as an account of abuse because it includes the child’s initiation into sexual pleasure. The author learned about sex from her father, and its many colors of pleasure remain prized by her— perhaps above all other sensation and all other forms of aliveness. “Sex is the center of things. If you’re having it, it’s the center. If you’re not, it’s the center,” she writes. For a brilliant dissection of the many queasy responses the book has prompted, read Amia Srinivasan’s March 2018 essay in Harper’s, “Silent Treatment, a troubling response to an incest memoir.”
Here are some things we learn in the book. The narrator’s father entered parts of her body before they were large enough to accommodate those things. One day her bath water turned red with blood. She learned to float above her body and look down from the ceiling or a cloud at a girl on a bed. She had orgasms that filled her with desire and loneliness. In dance class, she was afraid to open her legs, fearing people would know she had intercourse. She was afraid to stick out her tongue, believing people could tell she licked her father’s cock.
She imagined bashing in the heads of cats. She had nightmares in which she saw her “long-haired scalp hanging from a blossoming tree branch.” On repeated occasions, her father tied her to a chair and left her alone in a closet. After he opened the closet, he fucked her mouth. He used a steak knife to cut her vagina while she was tied up. The wounds healed without medical attention. She sat on a heater until she could smell her flesh burning. She asked strangers in grocery stores to take her home. She pulled off the head of her Barbie doll.
The author presents herself as neither a victim nor a hero. Her book resolves nothing about ambivalence, and that is one of its gifts. Her father was the parent who fed her, combed tangles from her hair, picked her up from school. As a child, he and his sister had been raped repeatedly by their grandfather. The author thought her father’s penis was beautiful. She walked in ways to turn him on and had sex with him for the last time at 21 because she wanted to. Summing up her feelings about him, she writes, “I want him to think that I’m sexy. And I want to savagely mutilate his body and feed his corpse to dogs.”
She wants the reader to enter the story as if the story is about the reader, and to achieve this effect, she slips the noose of moral language and the noose of psychoanalytic reduction (moralism dressed in a white coat). She opts mostly for restraint and deadpan delivery, layering memory, rumination, theory, and sometimes art criticism, as in this elegant series of jump cuts:
Sometimes I read my father’s journals without him knowing. When I was a teenager, I read that nothing felt as good to him as being naked around me. Another time he wrote that little girls can be so sexy because they just love you and they want you to touch them. When Richard Serra was a boy, he was standing on the shore and he watched an old ship get launched into the sea. This gargantuan thing was set into the water, where it made the water move like mad, but the water held it. He says he thinks that all of his work might be about that day—about the transfer of mass and heavy things buoyed up. Maybe all of the things I do are about my father raping me before I knew how to read or write.
On my Facebook comment about the book, one man posted a lengthy narrative about his own experience of sexual abuse. Another man was interested only in the father as a criminal who should be punished. I did not respond to the first man. My post was not about sexual abuse in general, and I thought he was shifting attention from the woman to himself. I responded to the second man by saying the author wants to be seen. She’s asking the reader to consider what a life looks like, smells like, tastes like when it has been formed in the framework of incest and rape. The man kept returning to the father. He didn’t want to look at the woman’s life.
That was pretty much the author’s experience where she grew up, a world where people read art books, sent their kids to private school, and owned beach houses and horses. Several older women she tried to talk to did not want to know. When she told her maternal grandmother, the woman offered her a tuna fish sandwich. The author’s mother knew what was happening under her roof; there was blood on the sheets of her premenstrual child. She suffered from depression and seems to have roused herself only to ride in steeplechase competitions. One day, when the author was 20, her father tried to choke her to death. By then her parents were divorced. The author jammed a heel into his sternum, ran out of the house, and called her mother to come for her. Her mother said she did not want to drive that far.
When the author was 22, she confronted her father about child rape and incest. He said he was sorry. The next day he denied everything. The author’s brother had a nervous breakdown in light of the revelations and her grandfather threatened to commit her to a mental institution. For her brother’s sake, she retracted the charges. He recovered and to this day, they have not spoken about it further.
Here are some other things the author discloses. At sixteen, she spent a year in Chile, living with a family, and met a businessman who was older than her father and with whom she conducted a secret sexual affair. After college, she was married to a man for twelve years. He was kind, and they seldom had sex. After the marriage ended, she met a man who liked to do the things to her body her father had done. It turned her on. She is with this man at the end of the book, having sex that feels familiar, scary, disgusting, irresistible.
Most critics have seen the author as starting in darkness and ending in darkness—as if they need to judge her as broken to prove the vileness of her ordeal. It’s commonplace to question the understandings women bring to their stories of sex as well as to question the truth of their accounts. It’s commonplace to disbelieve women publicly because privately they are believed.
The author’s account is not a rare thing scuttling out from under a rock. What rattled the people the author told and has rattled some critics is the story’s familiarity. The extreme trauma detailed in The Incest Diary gains resonance not as an example of psychological perversity but as a reflection of a dominant social force. A father believing he owns the life and body of his daughter. A man cutting the genitals of a girl. A malesupremacist culture alternating intimidation with a promise of protection. The punishment of murder for disobedience. Bondage, hurting, rape, child marriage, forced allegiance to the tribe. Gee, where are these things happening? Maybe not in every white household in Greenwich, Connecticut, but in the lives of millions of girls and women right now, a reality that lends legitimacy to the actions of men like the author’s father, who has not been tried for any crimes. If the stories women tell about sex were publicly acknowledged as true, what to do about everything else in the world?
What has been left for the author and what has been taken away? Based on the book’s chronology, she appears to be in her early forties. She comes across as self-reliant and profoundly alone. In the narrative, her focus is so squarely on her own sensations, other people are shadowy. Even her father is a vague presence, instrumental only to her tale of captivity and captivation. No matter what else was happening, she excelled at school and felt an overwhelming need to protect her brother. Most evident, she has become a masterful writer, a woman alive in her flesh, and a person who does not evaluate pleasure in relationship to the way it is stirred. Pleasure is pleasure. Incest and rape are vile crimes. Her boyfriend may not be your dom. Lots of people enjoy S/M sex who were not raped as children and did not experience incest. Sexual tastes change in the course of a life, or they do not. You can count yourself lucky if you emerge from childhood with your clitoris intact, and if you get to spend at least part of your life deeply aroused.
Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and has published numerous stories in such publications as N+1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, New Letters, Tri- Quarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.
The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography By Deborah Levy
New York, NY; Bloomsbury, 2018, 144 pp., $20.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Carole DeSanti
At the outset of this singular memoir, the second volume of Levy’s “Working Autobiography,” (the first was Things I Don’t Want to Know, published in 2013), we learn that Levy has left a marriage, a home, and an at least somewhat conventional family life with a husband and two daughters—a world that she had spent decades creating and nourishing. She has mourned, dismantled, moved on: “To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House … is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.” Levy evokes the caring and curating that went into this creation—the ticking of clocks, the seaside holidays, the blooming garden—and the shipwreck that it all became: a great sinking hulk to which she would not swim back. To do that would be to drown herself in anger and betrayal.
The literal details of all of this are barely sketched in, but the emotional currents that carried Levy out and away from this life and into transformation, a sense of becoming, are drawn with superb clarity. And, if we ever suspect it all might not have been quite as conventional as suggested (in The Cost of Living’s first scene, she is eating coconut rice and fish alone at a beachside bar in Colombia, eavesdropping on a nearby conversation), we forgive, if only out of sheer curiosity. After all, this thankless house and this marriage somehow managed to contain her, at least for a while. And Deborah Levy must be one of the most unusual minds putting digital ink to the screen today.
The Cost of Living is a sleight-of-hand masterpiece, a text full of unfathomable juxtapositions and curious segues. Timeframes are a bit elastic; for example, we never learn whether her liberatory Colombian meal—the scene that gave her a window onto what this memoir needed to be, and who might need it—took place before, during, or after her divorce. But she gets away with it. It works because of a crystalline economy of prose, and Levy’s uncanny talent for imbuing objects and events of daily living with a magnetic energy that creates a momentum and drama all its own. Her background in theater serves well. Chosen props and scenes draw us into a narrative that despite its notuncommon subject matter has the freshness of an onshore breeze after a tempest has passed. These include: an electric screwdriver, a black negligee, a garden shed, a funeral and the kinds of weeping at it, a cocktail party in which Levy does not pass a canapé to a man who can’t ask her name or speak his wife’s, a Provençal stove, a freezer full of frozen quartered apples, a clock that marks the hours with birdcalls. We are given a glimpse of an anxious meeting with film executives. Levy is sent away from it with homework—to make a list of major and minor characters in the novel under consideration, since the moguls just can’t figure out which is which.
All these populate a text that is only glancingly a memoir; it is in fact a meditation on transformation— our aching, long-postponed need for it—what inspires it, and what it costs. In one column of the ledger stands a bookshelf of carefully chosen volumes—the guiding minds of de Beauvoir and Dickinson; Proust and Heidegger and Baldwin; the warnings of Macbeth. Also putting the author in the black are the generosity of a friend with the garden shed in which Levy writes, the intensity of close conversations; an electric bicycle that carries a woman and her groceries with greater ease, the discovery of what transforms grief. On the other side of the balance sheet is nothing more or less than the cost of living, including and especially those who would force a woman to the margins of her own life, and tax her dearly for claiming the right to her own majority. It is a precarious balance. “[F]reedom is never free,” writes Levy. “Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”
Much in this volume has gone less examined than it should have been since de Beauvoir; since Baldwin. Maybe since Macbeth. The Cost of Living considers how a woman deconstructs and rebuilds herself—block by block, brick by brick. The heavy lifting, as Levy calls it, is a motif that recurs. The lifting (or not)—of a canapé, a glass of champagne, an e-bike, of clogs in a drain and boxes and boxes from the former house—is both physical and symbolic. In this slim volume, heavy effort is made soufflé light. (Although the soufflé itself is a dish that Levy will never again bother to make for reasons of social necessity.)
She has done the work of dismantling; a prodigious effort containing lifetimes and generations, folded together in an intricate, impossible, origami; a shape evident and tangible enough to be seen, felt, held in the mind and even, released. In all of this focused intention is a message. Still, it is one to be whispered from ear to ear rather than blared from the rooftops. That platform is reserved, still, for the incessant, tinny scratches of the tannoy—the several voices of “Big Silver,” as we come to know him here—he who will not cease; who considers himself the only major character; who does not know our name and will never speak it; who insistently demands pleasure, attention, endless listening. And yet, we must stop Big Silver’s voice, each of us in ourselves; in our own ears and in the very fabric of our living—that is, if we want to live. As Olivia Laing puts it in her review for The New Statesman, “this is a manifesto for a risky, radical kind of life.” Or framed differently, the photographer Berenice Abbott, a woman who also understood the cost of living, once said, “Until you do what you what you want to do you do not know your own identity.” Levy would agree.
The Cost of Living also made me want to listen more carefully, and with a new ear: is there reciprocity here; genuine engagement? Is pleasure present—not just for the one who considers himself (or herself, as these things don’t always break along gender lines) the major character in the situation— but for others in the frame; for me?
On the day that I was preparing to write this review, I had the radio on: a classical music program. In honor of Labor Day weekend, the host had chosen music about work, and she put on a song called, “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” a Sondheim ode to giddy masculine delight of taking full advantage of such a person around a house (looking down her blouse, etc.). The song is a sleazy, winking romp that now seems preposterously out of date, though a salient reminder of all we have lived through and, indeed, the costs we still bear. The host announced it with a mild comment that it gives us “much to think about.” (Because Levy is so particular about naming women and I missed the host’s name, I looked her up: she is Dorothy Bernstein of KANW out of Albuquerque, listed as a “Volunteer Host” of this Sunday morning classical program. Thank you, Dorothy, for the free labor!) Later I watched YouTube renditions of that song, campily homoerotic, one sung by Sondheim himself at a celebration of his birthday and career at the BBC Proms in 2010—a performance met with wild applause. Clearly, a person who had no difficulty making himself the major character; and the world complied. As it does.
That evening I was to have dinner with a man for whom I had done some work—not as a maid, but perhaps a kind of twenty-first century corporate equivalent while in a job I had recently left behind much as Deborah Levy had left her marriage. Leaving that position was my own tempest, the wreck of many hopes, dreams and years of service— and one reason that The Cost of Living felt so resonant and relevant. As I read Levy’s memoir, I was still prying barnacles from my own splintered lumber and getting familiar with a strange new shore. I suspected that this dinner would bring a new solicitation to work for him, and my own wrestling match with life’s balance sheet—who, and what, was to command attention and resource. But instead, I had had to face the fact that I wasn’t, at this moment anyway, able to do the kind of work I had done, and from which I had heretofore made my living. My own decades-long narrative—that the expenditure of self, time, care, energy, and creative personal resource to help others become the major characters of their own stories, and in their own lives, was okay, was worth it—this had come to an end. It was an ending I’d postponed as long as I could. For love, affection, ties that bind, pride in my work; political convictions, a salary; fear of chaos and the unknown—the book of reasons was a hefty tome. But inevitably, its final chapter had been reached. “Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want,” writes Levy. I could only hope that this was true.
Sondheim’s fantasy maid never said no; whatever the cost, she’d comply. Neat as a pin. Quiet as a mouse. I thought about the disruptions, the dismantlings, the “no’s” rippling across the lives of so many women I knew, and certain men, too. Brassy and loud; quiet and gentle; long choked but now stuttered, whispered, shouted. Letters, poems, novels, texts, posts, blogs, emails, and tweets. Digital ink, sweat, tears, and blood. All of these brave souls, willingly or not—with reluctance, or excitement, or trepidation, or astonishing courage “stepp[ing] outside the societal story that offered her symbolic protection.” “How is she to protect herself?” Levy asks. How will I? How will any of us?
The Cost of Living opens with an observation from Orson Welles—that if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. This working autobiography stops where it starts, in medias res. Levy does not exactly give us happy endings; though we travel through this book on a smooth wing of hope. It’s hope for ourselves, for the ability to give ourselves over fully to change; and certainly for the next installment of Levy’s journey and the luminous clarity of her reflection upon it.
Carole DeSanti was Executive Editor at Viking Penguin, a Division of Penguin RandomHouse. She is the author of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., and is at work on a new novel, Plunder.
Love War Stories By Ivelisse Rodriguez
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 200 pp., $16.95 paperback
Training School for Negro Girls By Camille Acker
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 248 pp., $17.95, paperback Reviewed by Rochelle Spencer
Two recent short story collections from the Feminist Press have created something rare: kaleidoscopic portraits of girls of color that demonstrate their innocence, defiance, selfreflection, and joy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us against the danger of a single story, of constructing myths to represent an entire group. Ivelisse Rodriguez’s Love War Stories and Camille Acker’s Training School for Negro Girls don’t tell a single story of adolescence or childhood; instead, each story provides a new lens on youth and how children of color may experience it. This summer, we’ve seen children of color harassed by police for selling water and delivering newspapers. And we’ve felt the loss of Nia Wilson, who had just entered adulthood when she was murdered by someone believed to be a white supremacist. We realize that, while all children risk having their voices diminished and their movements restricted, youth of color face life-altering and life-ending consequences for trying to live freely.
The two collections, which are structurally and thematically in conversation with each other, examine restrictions on girls of color and pose uncomfortable questions: for girls of color, when does adulthood start? Has society denied girls of color a collective childhood, by positioning them as caretakers and nurturers? Are girls (and boys) of color given the freedom to rebel and make mistakes?
In “El Que Dirán,” the first story in Rodriguez’s collection, Noelia decides she doesn’t want to become like her aunt Lola, whose selfhood is defined by the loss of a man. Noelia decides that while her heartbroken aunt mourns a man who has long forgotten about her, she, Noelia, will defy the traditions of 1950s Puerto Rican society and have sex with her boyfriend without caring whether he stays or goes. The story ends with a celebration of rebellion and defining womanhood on one’s own terms, with sentences whose rhythms and language mimic love-making: “[...]when he arrived, he kissed me and undressed quickly. I watched Lola fling what looked like confetti from her open window ... I pushed his shoulders up, so I could look at him one last time. Then he entered me. And I wondered what her room felt like now, devoid of its past. Had it sunk? Or risen again?” But it isn’t sex that moves Noelia into adulthood; it’s deciding to love, making the decision to be true to herself by being vulnerable with another.
Throughout the collection, Rodriguez suggests this vulnerability as necessary for adulthood. In “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” Veronica, a student at Holyoke High School, lives in a community where you fight or act hard, where “Puerto Rican girls walk in silence, hoping for invisibility if they are alone or in pairs.” The adults Veronica knows are scared to be open, scared to feel, and though Veronica is a secret romantic (“even Holyoke girls are allowed to hope for love”), she’s disenchanted. She has seen too many relationships end because of poverty and stress.
In 2018, we may live with the bluster of Donald Trump and a hyper-masculinity associated with physical strength, guns, and weapons, but Rodriguez shows us we don’t have to accept it. Through “El Que Dirán,” and “Holyoke, Mass: An Ethnography,” she dismantles the idea that vulnerability and sensuality lack value, and with “The Summer of Nene,” she suggests new models for strength. Jimmy knows Nene has health problems, but that doesn’t prevent him from falling for him. Emotional vulnerability, this story indicates, increases our capacity for love—and marks us as adults.
How we tell our stories reveals our maturity. “The Simple Truth” parallels the lives of three women—Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos, the youthful Maricarmen, and Maricarmen’s mother. Maricarmen admires Julia de Burgos because she displays her emotions deeply and openly. But so does Maricarmen’s mother, who has been betrayed by Maricarmen’s father. While Maricarmen is enthralled with her father, she comes to respect her mother’s stories and storytelling style, her version of fairy tales that “would always lapse into some feminist manifesto, completely changing the story.” Thus, “The Simple Truth” is less about a universal truth than how ambiguity molds storytelling: Maricarmen acknowledges how our stories bend and stretch depending on the storyteller (“But if my father told the story. If my mother told the story”). “Love War Stories,” the culminating story in the collection, is humorous, with multiple literary allusions to other epic love battles. It features Rosie, who, on the verge of becoming an adult, declares a war against love until she realizes even failed relationships can have value. This final exploration of growth reminds us of the continuous process of making ourselves willing to love. Acker, like Rodriguez, explores freedom and vulnerability and the specific cultural histories central to understanding her characters. The story of Washington, D.C., shadows the collection, which opens with an epigraph from educator Nannie Burroughs: “women, barely out of girlhood, were trained to follow society’s rules ... Then, they would be free.” A backdrop of the nation’s capital makes Acker ’s examination of liberation more acute. Referencing Marion Barry or Len Bias makes us aware of the forces—racial stereotypes—that attempt to define the parameters of the characters’ lives. We see young girls and women, nearly drowned by their parents’, teachers’, and neighbors’ need for authority and control, still managing to swim out almost every time.
Divided into two parts, “The Lower School” and “The Upper School,” Acker examines why these forces exist, why children of color are confined and controlled. “The Lower School” is more somber in tone (“The Upper School” is often hilarious), but both sections question why some children are allowed to be vulnerable—protected—and some are not. The first story, “Who We Are,” is told in the collective voice, as the “we,” the voices of youth of color, go to school and hang out with friends. On the subway, “we” describes how “people in suits and ties and nice dresses and heels give us looks ... We talk louder to make them look. And we don’t stop until we see that they’re afraid.” Acker makes us aware that just by being vocal, the adolescents can make other passengers uncomfortable. Perhaps some of these passengers are also of color (D.C. is, after all, a Chocolate City), but this may be Acker’s point. One of her best critiques is how people of color can inflict pain on other people of color. And this pain restricts our ability to live freely and joyously. Acker’s young people want to be free, to be seen, but already they face a wall of stereotypes.
“Cicadas” is another story that sings with subtle metaphor. The story examines a black girl’s piano competition and opens with the scattered shells of cicadas, an insect known for their song. The cicadas are able to fly, to be free: “In the dank of D.C.’s summer heat, cicadas scaled the heights of oak trees, vocal and untrained trapeze artists.” Acker offers her readers a choice—do we want children’s songs to be flattened and oppressed or sail through oak trees? Ellery, Acker’s protagonist, is resilient and smart. After winning the piano competition against wealthier and more privileged students, she better understands her own power and flings the cicada shells, metaphorically breaking out of her shell.
“Strong Men,” set in 1986, references basketball player Len Bias, and seriously examines black teenagers’ ideas about freedom while the laugh aloud funny “Final Draft of College Essay” will appeal to any black girl who has struggled to apply eyeliner, write college admission essays, and find her place in the world. With “Final Draft,” Acker mentally prepares for the second section, which is heavy on irony (“The Ropes”) and humor (“Training School for Negro Girls”).
Acker isn’t easy on her characters; she dissects them and points out the biases they have towards those in their own communities. In “The Ropes,” Dawn, a young and inexperienced black teacher, singles out one of her students—a spirited black girl from a poor neighborhood—for punishment. Dawn decides to teach students values like honesty and integrity (for some strange reason, through political campaigns), but reveals her own limited capacity for empathy. The titular story, “Training School for Negro Girls,” mocks the pretentiousness of D.C.’s black middle class. Its absurdity and its satire of black social organizations shows the destructive side of the so-called “black elite.”
To make mistakes, to be vulnerable, to question or defy the rules and not be unduly overly punished for it are rarities for youth of color. Acker and Rodriguez reveal why girls of color fight for the right to make youthful mistakes, just like everyone else.
Rochelle Spencer is author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge, 2019), co-editor, of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2018), and a co-curator of the Let’s Play exhibition and Oakland’s Digital Literature Garden.